Toast of Leafs Nation

LANCE HORNBY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 9:04 AM ET

NEW YORK -- Jiri Tlusty provided something more than just two goals to the Maple Leafs in his remarkable debut.

"He gives you hope," said coach Paul Maurice, who needed a sign from the hockey gods that this wouldn't be a "same old, same old" season with injuries and so-so play from veterans. "He still has a big smile on his face today."

When a teenage first-round forward (13th overall in 2006) steps into the lineup and scores two, it's like a stat holiday in Leafs Nation, brought up to believe its high drafts were either injury-prone or had been traded away. Nik Antropov, 10th overall in 1998, made a little noise a season after he was drafted, but after that, you have to go back 20 years to Vince Damphousse to find a rookie forward who made a lasting impact.

Tlusty's two goals in 35 seconds in the 5-2 win over Pittsburgh was the first time in 15 years a new Leaf potted a pair in his debut. Nikolai Borschevsky did it with his banana blade on Oct. 6, 1992, against the Washington Capitals.

Of course, Maurice and general manager John Ferguson aren't handing Tlusty a steady job yet. It's quite possible yesterday's toast of Toronto might freeze on stage tonight in Manhattan when he comes face-to-face with Czech idol Jaromir Jagr. But the bosses are getting good vibes from this kid.

"He didn't do enough at camp to stay, but he did enough to keep him in there and to make him one of the first callups," Maurice said.

Tlusty, who had three points in five games on the farm before getting a call at 1 a.m. Wednesday to move his gear to the ACC, was quite familiar to the Leafs on draft day in Vancouver. He had played with defenceman Tomas Kaberle in Kladno during the lockout; Kaberle's father, Frantisek, was one of his agents; and ex-Leafs first-rounder turned scout Peter Ihnacak had a good book on him from club hockey and the Czech national program. Central scouting had him ranked third in Europe through most of 2005-06.

Bothered by an ankle sprain that cost him half a season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 2006-07, Tlusty ended the year with the Marlies with four points in six games and the wide-eyed six-footer came to the Leafs prospect camp in July.

"Without trying to sound corny, he embodied everything we're looking for in a Leaf," development coach Paul Dennis said. "He stood out at the camp because he took a huge interest in the nutrition courses, the psychology, he had a really healthy outlook on life and asked all kinds of questions about the Raptors, our soccer team and the city in general. He had a real thirst for knowledge which was great for a kid who could barely speak English the year before.

"That speaks well of what (coach) Craig Hartsburg did for him in the Soo and for what his (billet, the Campbell) family did for him there. It all augers well for his development."

Though he seemed to be tentative in camp, especially in exhibition games when paired with veteran Leafs, Maurice detected a lot of cunning plays away from the puck.

"I was talking to Matt Stajan and Alex Steen (his linemates) and they have no concerns about him. He's a smart player."

Maurice had joked on Wednesday that he didn't expect Tlusty to score a hat trick, but he came within a Marc-Andre Fleury glove save of doing just that. Credit Ferguson with an assist on Tlusty's first NHL goal, as he was convinced that Steen's shot had glanced off Tlusty's butt. The GM asked for a video review, but by then Tlusty was taking a breakaway pass from countryman Pavel Kubina and unloading a great glove-side wrist shot.

"I had dinner with him (Wednesday) night and he made me remember how excited I was in my first game," Kubina said.

Tlusty's mother is a teacher and his father a businessman and the phone has been going off at all hours on both sides of the Atlantic since Wednesday.

"Playing in the NHL was my dream," Tlusty said.

"Certainly all the coaches and people here were very happy for what he did the other night, as were the kids who've played with him," Hartsburg said. "He certainly learned a lot last year, even though he missed 20 games."

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THE TLUSTY FILE

NAME: Jiri Tlusty

BORN: March 16, 1988

HOMETOWN: Slany, Czech Republic, a town of 16,000 about 40 km from Prague, famous since medieval times for its salt water spring.

POSITION: Centre/left wing

DRAFTED: 13th overall, 2006

DID YOU KNOW?

- First Leaf to score twice in his NHL debut since Nik Borschevsky in 1992.

- Alexander Ovechkin and Anze Kopitar are the only other NHLers to do that the past two seasons.

- Scouted by Peter Ihnacak, who was picked 25th by the Leafs in 1982.

- Highest drafted Leafs forward in 10 years, other than Nik Antropov (10th in 1998).

- Had 34 points in 37 games for the Soo Greyhounds.

- Played club hockey for Kladno with Tomas Kaberle during the lockout.

- Only other Leafs to wear No. 41 are Jason Allison, Paul Gagne, Eric Lacroix, Matt Stajan and Shayne Toporowski.


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